The most common story that you will come across for the discovery of tea is the one about Emperor Shen Nong who happened to be sitting besides some boiling water when a tea leaf fell from a bush or tree into the pot which he then drank with great pleasure. Although many treat this a just another delightful Chinese myths there are, worryingly, still others that report it as an historical fact. There are doubts as to whether Shen Nong even existed and he may well have been a composite character that represented many other individuals. As well as tea, he is credited with the invention of the hoe, plough, axe, wells and irrigation among others. Legend has it that Shen Nong had a transparent stomach and would use this to research the affects of various plants on the body. Whenever he had ingested a poisonous one he would drink tea as a powerful antidote.
An equally unlikely tale from Japan suggests the Bodhidharma (a Buddhist monk) discovered tea after he had been sitting in meditation in China for seven years before becoming so tired that he fell asleep. Angry at his inability to stay awake he sliced off his eyelids to prevent it happening again and threw them to the ground; where they grew into tea trees. After picking some leaves and chewing them he felt energised and concluded that the tea was a perfect accompaniment to meditation.
More probable is that using tea leaves by eating or in a drink was a slow evolution. There is evidence from around the world that early people would have collected leaves from the forest for a variety of medicinal and other purposes. It was a stroke of luck for those living in that particular area of Asia that their leaf was a very special one. Some recent research has unearthed evidence of tea being used over 6,000 years ago in China’s Zhejiang province. Some say that this is proof of 6,000 years of tea culture but I’m not so certain as to whether it is possible to conclude whether tea leaves were being cultivated or simply harvested at the time.
Whatever the origins of tea for recreational purposes it was the Chinese who went on to develop it, through various stages, to the drink that we know and love today. Although there are a few references to tea to be found in old scripts the first detailed writing on tea was produced by Lu Yu in his celebrated work, the Classic of Tea published in the second half of the 8th century. At the time of writing the method for making tea was very different from today. The leaves were steamed, crushed in a mortar, made into a cake, and boiled together with rice, ginger, salt, orange peel, spices, milk, and even onions. On second thoughts maybe we are coming around full circle on the evidence of the exotic flavoured blends that are now available.
The Classic of Tea consists of three volumes and ten chapters which cover the nature of the tea-plant, gathering and collecting leaves, tea equipment, method of making tea (he encouraged the elimination of all other ingredients apart from salt), choice of water and the famous tea gardens of China. According to Lu Yu the best quality of the leaves must have “creases like the leathern boot of Tartar horsemen, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like a mist rising out of a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain.” Something to bear in mind when you are next in supermarket!
In the 10th century whipped tea came into fashion and created a second school of tea. Leaves were ground to fine powder using a small stone mill, and the preparation was whipped in hot water by a bamboo whisk. At this stage salt was discarded forever.
Powdered tea remained the range for several hundred years until in the mid 14th century taste changed once again and the infused tea leaf method we use today become the norm. Of course, powdered tea lives on with the popular Japanese matcha. The conversion to infused leaf coincided with tea becoming available to all rather than being the preserve of nobility, monks and scholars. It would also not be long before Europeans got in on the act.
Tea seeds had been taken from China by Buddhist monks to both Japan and Korea in the 9th and 10th centuries and cultivation began in both countries soon afterwards.
The first contact with for Europeans were Portuguese traders at the end of 16th century and by the early 17th century they and, more especially, the Dutch were importing tea to their respective countries and became popular with the upper classes and at royal courts. Tea was first sold in London in 1657 (imported from the Netherlands) but by 1664 the British East India Company was importing its own tea from China. In Britain, it was the restoration of Charles II to the throne and his marriage to Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess, that had the greatest impact on the tea trade. Part of the dowry that Charles received on marrying Catherine, apart from some chests of tea, was the port of Bombay (Mumbai) which became pivotal to British trade in the far east through the East India Company, with significant implications in both India and China.
During this period tea became very popular in Britain and spotting an opportunity it was subjected to heavy excise duties which resulted in both the growth of brutal smuggling gangs and ultimately to the American War of Independence. Tea had been introduced to America by the Dutch and remained a popular drink up until the Boston Tea Party in 1773, one of the events leading up to the revolution. Following independence coffee became the drink of choice in the United States.
As the demand for tea continued to grow supply was still closely guarded by China with cultivation and production expanding to more provinces including the introduction of tea plants to Taiwan in 1697. The demand for tea (as well as silk and porcelain) from China was placing an enormous strain on the finances of the East India Company as they had to pay for everything in silver. To overcome this one-way flow of silver the Company initiated a scheme to sell opium from its plantations in India, through middlemen, to the Chinese. In response to this reverse flow of silver and the increasing number of opium addicts the Chinese authorities attempts to stop the trade ended with them seizing supplies and closing foreign concessions in Canton. And so began the first of the Opium Wars in 1839 which had several legacies including the cession of Hong Kong and opening up China to foreign merchants.
Despite it’s military success against China Britain needed a longer term alternative for the supply of tea and India seemed the obvious choice. In 1823 it had been discovered that indigenous tea plants were growing in northern Assam various initiatives were set up to establish a tea industry in India. The most famous of these were the travels of Robert Fortune whose life is excellently documented in the book For All The Tea In China by Sarah Rose. Fortune was employed by the East India Company as an industrial spy to go undercover in China and find out all he could about tea growing and production. He returned with a booty of seeds, cuttings but more importantly the know-how of what to do with the leaves once they had grown. Fortune’s efforts were an important catalyst for the Indian tea industry and in the latter part of the 19th century tea production was expanding quickly in both Assam and Darjeeling.
Elsewhere, the Dutch had introduced tea to Java, Indonesia in 1826 and the British started plantations in Sri Lanka (1867) and Kenya (1903).
In Vietnam, tea culture was largely influenced by that which had developed in China. For almost one thousand years up until the middle of the 10th century China ruled large parts of northern Vietnam. It was a period that saw a strong Chinese desire for cultural assimilation on one side and fierce Vietnamese resistance to foreign domination on the other. The Vietnamese eventually regained independence but legacies of religion, language, traditions, culture and a love for tea remained.
Despite the presence of tea as an indigenous plant and that it had spread throughout the mountainous north by the migration of ethnic minority groups (such as H’Mong and Dao) there was no significant domestic tea industry (note: a few historic texts do reference tea cultivation in parts Vietnam in the 18th century) until after the French occupation and during the ensuing colonial period. The first tea gardens were established in 1890 at Tinh Cuong, Phu Tho province in the north and Duc Pho, Quang Nam province in the south. In the early part of 20th century, research centres were established at Phu Tho, Pleiko in the central highlands and Bao Loc in the western highlands. Development was rapid in the years leading up to the Second World War but the industry was effectively destroyed by decades of successive conflict from the Japanese invasion in 1940 to the end of all hostilities in 1975.